Yeah, yeah, a new year is coming, and you're going to get in better shape. In shape, at least. Good call. But if you need a resolution...

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YEAH, YEAH, A NEW year is coming, and you’re going to get in better shape. In shape, at least. Good call. But if you need a resolution to get motivated, there’s a good chance that’s not all you need.

More people than ever are turning to personal trainers. They can motivate and provide a steady hand to guide you safely through the exercises. They can help make the most of your time by streamlining your workout and showing you how to get the greatest benefit at the lowest risk. The mere fact that you have an appointment with a trainer often helps you stick to your workout.

That’s what is supposed to happen. Reality gets tricky, though. Finding the right trainer requires homework. Would you let a handyman loose on your house without checking him or her out? Then why would you turn somebody loose on your health without doing so?

I’ve had wildly different experiences with trainers. Some stood by as I overdid it. Some stood by and barked as I overdid it. One babied me so much that I kept wondering when the workout was going to begin. One was so in-charge, smart and personable that I couldn’t wait to go back.

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There are no uniform industry standards in the field of personal training. Anyone can claim to be an expert. But the move within the industry is to standardize requirements, and the major fitness associations already have certification requirements, which they say lets consumers know the trainer has been schooled in everything from physiology to health psychology to first aid.

“It’s the consumer’s responsibility to ask about education, certification and information about the organization issuing the certification,” says Cedric Bryant, vice-president and chief exercise physiologist of the American Council on Exercise. “There are a lot of acronyms out there, and some of the certifications aren’t worth the paper they are printed on.”

I recently visited Roy Stevenson, who founded and still directs the personal-trainer program at Lake Washington Technical College. Students in his two-year program study anatomy-kinesiology, body systems, motor learning and biomechanics, as well as several other subjects. Besides the course work, lectures and tests, students must also do lab work at a fitness center. There, they direct “clients” and get graded by a supervisor on how they communicate, assume responsibility and leadership and what sort of attitude they project.

The program, started almost two decades ago, has been a community-college model, but Stevenson suggests that graduates also attain certification from two of the three major fitness agencies: the American Council on Exercise, the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Along those lines, he handed me a 3-pound, 3-inch-thick tome titled “The American Council on Exercise Personal Trainer Manual, 3rd Edition.” But a sheepskin isn’t all you should be concerned about. Among the other things to consider:

References. Ask the trainer for the names and phone numbers of other clients, especially those with goals and profiles similar to yours. Says the exercise council’s Bryant, “If you’re a 50-year-old woman whose goal is to lose weight, then you’d like to know how the trainer worked with a person like you.” Ask if the trainer was punctual, professional, organized, caring and attentive.

Special needs. A trainer should have you complete a health-history questionnaire to determine your special condition or limitations and design sessions with that in mind. In extreme conditions, he or she should work with your doctor.

Rates and arrangements. What does the trainer charge? Rates vary based on the trainer’s experience and the duration and location of the session.

Details. Does the trainer have liability insurance and written business policies? A reputable trainer should make sure you understand the cancellation policy and billing procedure. Get those in writing.

Red flags. Be careful with the trainer who peddles supplements or other products. It is one thing to suggest items, another to profit from them. Consider motivations. Also watch out for a trainer who takes on a physical-therapist role, unless they are so certified.

The vibe. Forget degrees and certifications and rates for a second. Can you get along with this person? Will he or she be flexible enough to accommodate your schedule? Will the trainer keep the workout fresh? And, what sort of person are you? “If you’re a loner type,” Bryant says, “maybe working with a trainer isn’t your thing.”


Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at rseven@seattletimes.com.